Green Birding, Adventure Birding


May 6, 2013—In the ridiculously charming movie The Big Year, distance is no barrier to greatness. In their mad quests to see more birds in North America than anyone else in a 12-month period, the characters played by Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson ping-pong between their homes (and irritated spouses and family members) and points afar: British Columbia, the Gulf Coast, Oregon, the Aleutian Islands. Chartered flights and helicopter rides abound. The frequent flier miles pile up like autumn leaves.

The driven nature of serious birders is legendary. And Santa Cruz birder and Monte Vista Christian School science teacher Scott Smithson is no exception. But at some point, the idea of flying to the Olympic Peninsula at the drop of a hat to see a rare bird started to conflict with his values.

“I am a hopelessly addicted birder myself,” Smithson says. “I have driven many miles in my life to track down the rarest of the rare birds that show up in California and beyond. But I’m also a biology teacher and also a sort of a—I wouldn’t call myself an extreme environmentalist, but I want to live my life in a way that’s not hard on the earth.

"So I have these convictions about being a good steward of the earth, yet they seemed to go out the window when a rare bird showed up.”

In 2011 Smithson started a Wordpress site called Green Big Day. Its purpose: to provide a forum for birders to compete in a carbon-free Big Day, in which they spot as many birds as possible in any 24-hour period without generating any carbon emissions. That means walking or biking, not driving or flying.

Green birding is a newish concept. In 2008, some Montreal birders coined the term Big Green Big Year, and a movement was born. BIGBYists, as they call themselves, are a sizable crowd in the birding world. And they’re hardcore. Their commitment to “patch birding,” or developing a deep familiarity with the birds of their own locale rather than chasing after rare specimens glimpsed two counties over, fits right in with locavorism and human-powered transportation as a rigorous lifestyle choice that is as incomprehensible to outsiders as it is satisfying to practitioners.

Seeing plenty of green Big Year resources but nothing for a green Big Day, Smithson leaped into the fray. This year, his third, two teams—one from the Bay Area and one from Texas—tied each other with 181 birds each. That’s huge, says Smithson. (The conventional Big Day record, set this year, is 294.)

“Robert Furrow and Josiah Clark, the Bay Area biker birders—they’re machines!” Smithson exclaims. “They started and ended at midnight to do that 181. Remarkable.”

Smithson confesses that he has an ulterior motive in promoting green birding: inspiring the next generation of birders. Luring them with the appeal of a physically demanding sport and the possibility of setting and breaking records for carbon-free local Big Days across the country might be the key, he says.

“I think in the next 10 years, we’ll see all those records set by young guys and girls who right now are in grade school,” he says. “They’ll start making it as competitive as car birding is. And once that happens, there’ll be kind of a resurgence of adventure birding—they’re birders, but they’re also bikers, they’re long distance hikers, backpackers. What better way to connect with the younger generation than to add adventure and competitiveness to what, frankly, is an older person’s sport right now?”

As for current birders, Smithson says many of them scoff at the idea that their hobby is tough on the environment. But he saw for himself how many people show up to a rare sighting last September, when a common cuckoo—a Eurasian bird—turned up in a Watsonville slough. Within 36 hours, 500 people had come to see the spectacle. And the bird stayed for 5 days. Basically everyone in North America trying for a Big Year had to go to Watsonville to see the bird, says Smithson. What if each of them had donated to Watsonville Wetlands Watch as a form of offset?

Smithson knows birders won't stop traveling to see rare birds. Even he can't resist that now and then. But he insists there are ways to mitigate the environmental effects of such travel.

“The hottest bird right now is the Bahama woodstar," he says. "It was spotted in Pennsylvania. It’s supposed to be in the Caribbean. This is the first one seen since 1981. I can tell you right now the entire Eastern seaboard, if they haven’t been already, is on their way to Pennsylvania. It’s somebody’s back yard. So who are they gonna give that money to? But there’s always a way. If there was an unwritten code that they needed to find an organization nearby to donate to, what an amazing gift for the random place wherever that bird was found.”

Scott Smithson gives a talk Wednesday, May 8 in Watsonville about green birding and offsetting carbon emissions. Learn more here.

On May 9 in San Mateo, Josiah Clark and Mark Kudrav will talk about their carbon-free Big Year experiences, offering tips and advice to members of the Audubon Society Sequoia Chapter. Thursday, May 9, 7pm at San Mateo Garden Center, 605 Parkside Way, San Mateo.